My Dresden Files Addiction: It All Begins with Storm Front

Cover of Storm FrontI am a Dresden Files addict. I am, frankly, more than a little in love with Harry Dresden. Recently I re-read Storm Front, the first book in Jim Butcher‘s series. I love this series so much that I have actually read all of the books, but this was for a new book club that I’m in, and I was very happy to refresh myself on how Harry’s exploits began, because I truly feel that this series is urban fantasy at its best.

Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago. Far from being superhuman due to magical prowess, he is a wonderful “everyman” character, who suffers from many of the same flaws as typical mortals. Often, things don’t work out quite right for him, he gets beat up a lot, and many times finds himself in at best uncomfortable and at worst life threatening situations. In this first book, he goes up against a rogue necromancer who is killing people and who eventually gets around to threatening Harry’s life. To complicate matters, Harry routinely works with the police force, especially the cop Murphy, who has little time for the complexities of how the wizard world interacts with the human world. And to complicate matters further, on this particular case Marcone, the local crime king, has specifically asked Harry not to investigate. Somehow, throughout it all, Harry manages to save the day, navigating as best he can between all of the different priorities and life threatening situations, making hard decisions, fighting off giant scorpions and toad-like demons, while always keeping what is right at the forefront of his mind.

One of the reasons that I fell in love with this character was because of his constant struggle to do the right thing. He is often accused of using his powers for nefarious means (especially by the Warden Morgan from the White Council of wizards), but in reality he always makes decisions based on the needs of others, even if the cost for himself may end up being high. Butcher does an excellent job of keeping the pressure on just enough to keep the story going, while allowing the reader to get to know Harry and understand him. He doesn’t use his magic for personal gain, and for all of his strengths there are weaknesses that balance him out. For example, his powers interfere with things that run on electricity, so no fancy car or computer for Harry. Instead, he drives a beat up old VW and does a lot of his detective work the old fashioned way, with just a little help from some locator spells. He is also not the best at relationships. Often this is a problem that is caused by him having to weigh out what information he can share, such as with Murphy or his potential girlfriend, Susan. We see everything through Harry’s eyes, though, so we can understand his struggle and cheer him on, because we can see that he’s essentially a good guy. One of the best.

The setting for these books is good, too. Using the fairly familiar backdrop of Chicago gives us a way to envision Harry’s world. However, there is also an alternate realm, the Nevernever, that houses all manner of fae creatures. Harry is able to open a doorway into this world, if needed, but as with all interactions of the fae kind, it is dangerous and tricky. Throughout the series, Butcher develops this part of the storyline more deeply, and there is a really nice balance between the “real” and the fantastic. Possibly the best that I have seen done in urban fantasy.

Character development throughout the series is good, too. History is created between different individuals – mortal and fae – and often this comes back in both helpful and detrimental fashion. The relationship between Harry and Murphy is an interesting exploration of partnership. And, there are some fun characters in the books, too, such as Bob, the incorporeal being who sometimes advises and assists Harry, lives in a skull, continually wisecracks, and loves to indulge in steamy romantic novels.

If you haven’t checked out this series yet, I highly recommend it, but must caution you – you may become addicted! Now is a great time to start, since there are 15 books in the series so far with the most recent, Skin Games, having just been released.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, Dark Fantasy with a Real Voice

The Drowning Girl trade paperback cover

… the world is filled with sirens. There’s always a siren, singing you to a shipwreck.

The last time I went to the library, I did something I haven’t done in a while. I just wandered through the stacks a little and looked, or felt, or whatever it is that happens when I sometimes stumble onto something that I don’t know I’m looking for. This time I struck gold. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl (a novel) was shelved at eye level on the end, right next to Two Worlds and In Between Volume 1 (a collection of short stories). I grabbed both after just a short review, and went to lunch, where I immediately became engrossed in Kiernan’s novel within the first few pages.

Kiernan’s character, India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends), comes from a family with a history of mental disorders. Her mother was schizophrenic, and both her mother and grandmother committed suicide. Imp also has some psychological issues, and takes a variety of prescriptions (which she discusses as male –“the Messiers”). The book takes the form of a memoir that Imp is writing while trying to work through recent life events that have left a tangle of confusion. Her chance meeting on a moonlit road with a naked woman, Eva Canning, becomes tied up in several obsessions that she deals with — a painting called The Drowning Girl, the fairy tales “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Little Mermaid”, a disturbing display by artist Charles Perrault, and the mythical sirens. About half way through this book, I had to stop for a day or so. Kiernan definitely hit a nerve with me regarding some of Imp’s obsessions with the number 7 and counting, as well as her fixation on the painting and stories to the point of collecting files of information on them. Everything is a bit too close, too realistic.

Soon, Eva Canning becomes the focal point of Imp’s obsessions, and she believes she has The Drowning Girl picture imaginedmet a true siren, because she absolutely cannot get Eva, or the words Eva whispered to her, out of her mind. But, is Eva a siren or a wolf? In Imp’s mind, she met Eva for the first time twice: once on a warm July evening (wet and close to drowning), and once on a snowy November night (wolflike with golden eyes). Imp has a fully constructed narrative for each meeting, and trying to suss out which of these are true, or whether somehow both are true, takes up much of her mental efforts.

Imp writes what she thinks, and often the other, more sane Imp, breaks in as she tries to struggle through her attempt at figuring out what is really happening to her. Kiernan’s prose is at times simple, eloquent, and exemplary of a true schizoid break as her character thinks deeply about things, and I was especially struck by insights that she voiced, insights that I realized I had also felt but never realized until then. For example, while considering her memories of “Little Red Riding Hood”:

I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf. So, I suppose I saw it as a werewolf. When I was older, and read a book about wolves and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen a wolf in my mind’s eye made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves. Especially if you are a wolf, or a little girl.

Her grasp of the horrific is greatest when she allows the most disjointed part of her mind to speak, in a chapter where her version of what has happened and her attempt to get a grip on who — or what — Eva was, is painfully allowed to pour out:

And I can still smell Eva crouched on the raw dirt above me, pissing, shitting wolf lady, and she raises her head, throws back her head, wishing there was a full moon that night, howling anyway. I think, howling because there wasn’t the moon, her faithful brutal sweet rapist. Her rapacious satellite. Her tidal puller. Pray you, love, remember, how could you use a poor maiden so?

Imp’s suffering is what creates the pull of this book. Her inability to determine what is real and what is just a creation of her poor, damaged mind. In the end, our narrator is unreliable, not only for us but for herself, and while there is a facsimile of resolution at the end of the book, neither Imp or the reader is allowed to walk away with it completely tied up in a neat package. There is always a shadow of doubt.

Two Worlds and In Between book coverKiernan’s collection of stories, Two Worlds and In Between, promises to be just as addictive for me. The stories span her career, and she has included short notes after each. However, her introduction to the collection, where she discusses what her stories mean to her, what writing means to her, is some of the most beautiful, dark writing I have ever read:

I wasn’t always a storyteller. I was something else and someone else before, and then there were a number of years as surely amounting to apocalypse as any seven shattered seals or blaring trumpets, a tumult of private war and famine, earthquakes and locusts and poisoned rivers. Becoming a storyteller was a necessary reinvention of myself from the ashes of who I was and who I might have been. In the aftermath, it’s what was left to me, and somehow, somewhy, I decided it was better than lying down and dying. One age ended and the next began, and in the new age I was a storyteller.

I, for one, am very glad that Kiernan’s storytelling age began, and I look forward to all the new paths for stories and nuances of voices that we can expect to hear from her.